43: Julia McKenzie (Getting Audio Comedy Commissioned)

Julia McKenzie is the Commissioning Editor for Comedy and Entertainment at Radio 4, and prior to that was Creative Director of BBC Studios Audio for 7 years, specialising in comedy and entertainment production.

In this conversation, Julia provides helpful insights for comedy writers who want to understand the audio landscape and find ways to get their work produced.

00:00 Introduction and Background

02:06 Starting in Audio and Comedy

08:11 Working with Producers

13:44 Commissioning Process

19:55 Audio Comedy Landscape

27:56 Pilots and Evaluation

33:36 Audio Formats

38:16 Favourite Comedy Shows

39:44 Recommendations and Resources

40:47 TV Recommendations

41:39 Fresh Take on Narration

43:15 Where to Find More

SHOWNOTES:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning

Jokes feed: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001tzf5

BBC Sounds app: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/help/questions/getting-started-with-bbc-sounds/sounds-intro

https://twitter.com/juliaamckenzie

Comedy of the Week: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pc9x6/episodes/downloads

Friday Night Comedy: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pc9pj

https://twitter.com/dmsareopenbbc

CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT

Danielle (00:01.122)

Today, I am thrilled to have Julia Mackenzie with me, who is Commissioning Editor for Comedy and Entertainment at Radio 4, which is the biggest commissioner for audio comedy in the world, and much beloved where I live in the UK and beyond. And prior to that, Julia was creative director at BBC Studios Audio for seven years, specialising in comedy and entertainment production. So I have so many audio and comedy related questions for you, Julia…But before we dive in, is there anything else that you’d love people to know about you and your connections to comedy?

Julia (00:33.756)

Hmm, not particularly, no. I suppose as you’ve outlined, I’m now the commissioner. And  previously I was in production, I ran that team. And then prior to that, I was a producer working in the comedy department. I joined that in 2007, I think it was. And previously I was in live radio for a good few years and tended to work with a lot of comedians then. It was a station called GLR, which became famous for lots of brilliant people who started out there. People like Phil Jupitus and Chris Evans and Danny Baker, and Sean Hughes, you know, lots and lots of comedians had shows on that local radio station and I also took over the job of producing the big Children in Need fundraising night at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire which I did for about six years as well. So there’s something about working with comedians and the particular joy of the way their brains work that really attracts me and so I was so excited to then be able to exclusively concentrate on comedy and now to be commissioning it is just like you know the perfect job arc in a way.

Danielle (01:41.834)

Yeah. Oh, I love that. And when you think back through that tremendous arc, does it stick in your mind what some of those first crucial steps were for you? Because I think sometimes that can be what’s most opaque to people is how to start getting that experience that starts moving them, particularly if they’re a creative person and might be interested in lots of aspects of comedy or writing. Do you remember what some of your first steps were that seem important?

Julia (02:06.768)

Hmm. Well, I think, as I said, I’ve been in audio a good long while and I started out doing work experience really to just get some hands-on experience of any type of audio…. And that was really useful because it gives you a bedrock. I wasn’t, at the very start, doing comedy. But I guess it’s just, it’s the things that inspire you and make you tick and for some people it would be journalism and factual things. It’s what interests you in your ordinary life. You know, on the TV, going out to see comedy gigs, going to the Edinburgh Festival, long before I started professionally. And when I first joined GLR, it was, I think it was hearing some of the presenters on air and just feeling it was quite anarchic and different and really gravitating towards that. And then I suppose you just get a foot on the ladder where you’re in the same building as them, but you might not necessarily work with them directly. Get some basic production skills and then you can try and make sure that you get experience in the areas you’re really passionate about. So I suppose it’s trying to get yourself into the right place, getting those basic skills and then making your kind of preferences clear to the people who are in a position to get you onto those shows really and your enthusiasm and so on. So you have to create your opportunities in many ways I think. Rather than just hoping that it’s going to happen, just try and see ways that you can really influence it so that it does. And I guess even though I, in local radio, started progressing at the management ladder and further away from production, that little light was burning inside me, so I made the decision to jump off management, go back down a level and go into production of comedy.

So I guess, yeah, it’s just staying focused on the things that inspire you and…you know, it’s just, it’s a joy, isn’t it, to be able to bring an interest that you really like doing in your personal life, or that makes you happy, and combine it with your work fields. And not everyone gets to do that, and it’s a real privilege. You know, I could have carried on attending comedy and loving comedy and gone a different path, maybe a more journalistic path, and the two could have been sort of parallel, but that, that joy of being able to bring the two together was really special.

But I think a lot of people won’t even know that there is a place that specialises in making comedy for instance, so it just requires sort of getting in there and listening to as much stuff as you can so that you can be as informed as possible when you’re trying to start a career. And actually when I was at studios, increasingly there were quite a lot of stand-ups who were interested in getting in production, so I recruited two different stand-ups who are still active stand-ups who also were interested in being producers and they had a lot of experience. They had real good intuition in that space. So that’s something that’s happening a lot more now. So you could be a professional in comedy, but you want a bit more of a secure income and you could perhaps combine the two and look to do a production role as well as continuing with your comedy career as a performer.

Danielle (05:35.95)

That’s interesting advice. And also, potentially for people who… because lots of people who listen to this podcast are writers, and some are writer performers as well, but lots are primarily writers. So, interesting to think about how a writer might also combine that with that production experience.

Julia (05:50.304)

Yeah, so I think there are a few examples I can think of as well who are not so performer oriented, but were writers and just really interested in getting under the bonnet of things. And, you know, because production is all about realizing the vision of the creative person you’re working with. And as a writer, you obviously can write your own thing in your own voice, but also to earn a living in comedy as a writer, you might well write for other comedians and try to get inside their head. You know they’re instinctively good on formats and so on and good at thinking off the cuff and it’s a skill they don’t often get to use, which is thinking about formats and things like, you know, panel shows and rounds and devising –  things like that. So I definitely would encourage writers who who. So this is a bit of a waffly answer. Well, I’m waffling a bit…

Danielle (06:49.726)

No, it’s fascinating. So it’s really got my brain going about formats because myself as a writer, I am that mix of, yes, being very creative, but I also actually really, I’m such a like structure format geek as well. I love how things are arranged. I love how, as you say, we get under the bonnet and do that too. So I’m sure I’m not alone in that. And that’s got me thinking about production in a whole new way, actually. I think I’ve seen them as more separate than is needed.

And actually one of the questions that I wanted to ask you, because I think it’s personally really useful to have a really good understanding about the people’s jobs. Like I started in theater, I think it’s useful to understand that you can have a much better conversation when you actually understand what a lighting technician is trying to do. I wanted to ask, because you manage a team of producers, as I understand, and from the kind of feedback that you get from them and the conversations that you have and your own experience as well, without having to name names, what do you think are some of the things that writers do that make other people’s jobs easier and make their kind of creative flow move better? And what are some of the things that they do that they might not be aware of, but that can actually just make the process more difficult than is needed? Because we don’t always, as humans, we try to be empathetic, but we don’t always have that understanding of what a producer’s really trying to do or what a commissioner’s really trying to do.

So in terms of meta patterns for writers, I know it’s a really difficult question, but I’m just curious.

Julia (08:17.324)

Yeah, well I used to run a team of producers when I was production side, yeah, at BBC Studios. So I don’t now. Now I have different production companies pitching ideas to me and that’s how I interact with them and creativity. But yes, in terms of writers, I suppose, do you mean for instance how a writer could work effectively with the producer, say if they’re writing a sitcom or a sketch show, do you mean it in that sense?

Danielle (08:44.882)

Yeah, a sitcom or comedy drama would be a lovely angle.

Julia (08:48.712)

Yeah, yeah. Well, I suppose then there’s lots of different types. You know, there is the writer who writes their own sitcom script, which they might do by themselves or with someone else. And I guess, you know, in terms of a productive relationship with the producer, it’s really about….You know, I suppose, you know, essentially, you’ve got to find the person that you vibe with first. And so you could end up sending a speculative script to a number of people. And, you know, the first person that you have a coffee with, you might not quite gel with. And they might have a, let’s say, for instance, you sent them a script and you meet up to talk to them about it. It might be they don’t quite get it or they start talking to you about things that you might do differently. And either that’s going to, as a writer, make you go, oh, wow, that’s interesting. I haven’t thought of it like that. And then you start to get real collaboration. And you’re like, I’m so excited about this direction. You’re right. I’m going to change it to go in that direction. Or you might sit there thinking, they didn’t really get it and that character they didn’t like, and it wasn’t what I intended…and they might make suggestions and you think, oh no, that’s not right at all.

And some people might think, oh, well, I’ve still got to sort of pursue that relationship and try and bend myself to kind of get on the same page as that person. So that’s the first thing, which is really fundamental, is why don’t you have another meeting or two with some other producers before you make a decision on who you want to write with? Because, you know, the chemistry has got to be right, hasn’t it? And sometimes that producer might say things to you that you disagree with, but on reflection, you think, you know what, they’re right… Holding on to that character, or I really like that particular bit of the plot but you know what I think they’re right. So it can be that sort of dynamic as well so I think that’s just the first fundamental thing check that you’re meeting with the right person because that could well be an ongoing relationship that you’ll have for many years and it could really shape your career

There’s someone I worked with for many years, a guy called David Reed, who is one of the Penny Dreadful’s sketch group. And I think in the end we must have done about 10 plays. And that was a really fruitful relationship. And, you know, I gave him notes that sometimes he disagreed with, but we seemed to have mutual respect. And, you know, we ended up with stuff that we were both really pleased with.

I think what you don’t want is a writer who’s continually pushing back on all of the notes and it’s up to the producer to give the right note and you know what I mean by a note, I know you will Danielle, but you know what I mean is feedback on lines and that sort of thing. We tend to refer to them as giving notes.

But if it’s a constant battle, that’s going to be exhausting for both parties. The writer is not going to feel heard. And the producer is just going to get exhausted and think, I just really don’t have the time to sort of battle through every notes. And as some people have said in the past, you know, writing is rewriting and you can often need to do many drafts before you get, you know, the piece of work into the right shape. So I suppose it’s just about.

I know what it’s like as well as a producer to get feedback and sometimes your back can go up. You know, I’ve had it from execs when I was, you know, in a more junior role and you can feel defensive around them. But if you try to remember that they’re not going to be personal and it’s trying to get your piece of work as good as it possibly can be, I think, you know, ideally, that’s the sort of mindset you want to approach it with as a writer.

So I suppose that’s, you know, in just quite broad terms, basic term is, you know, make sure you get the right chemistry with the right person to collaborate with. And then secondly, try not to be defensive around notes. And if you don’t really understand it, you know, it’s up to the producer to try and explain what they’re thinking is there. Sometimes it might be that it’s a bad note, or absurd.

But then afterwards you think, well, there clearly wasn’t something quite right with that. And I don’t agree with what they’d identified, but clearly there’s something I’m trying to communicate that is not coming over. So let me have another look at that again. And, you know, that can be another way to approach that. Yeah.

Danielle (13:18.065)

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And it’s very helpful. Thank you. And because of your role, being Commissioning Editor now, and I read a little bit of the information I could find online about what that pitching process looks like…. And if I’ve understood it correctly, it is independent companies and in-house, but even those words, when I kind of think, what does that actually mean? It can seem a little bit baffling from the outside.

So I was curious, if you wouldn’t mind just giving people a little bit of an overview of what that might be, how that process works. And I know it can be different at different times. Or if it’s easier to come at it from the angle of…what are some of the misconceptions when you tell people your job and they say, oh, I’m a comedy writer and how they think that’s going to match up. Just to kind of clear up some of the ground a bit.

Julia (14:04.936)

Yeah, yeah sure. Well I suppose on the latter one, the mistakes people make or misconceptions, is that you know…In terms of commissioning, we take submissions from production companies, not individuals. So sometimes I will get approached by individuals saying… I’ve written this thing. Please would you consider commissioning it? And we can only commission through production companies. So first of all, you need to find yourself a production company to work with. And you can, I think there’ll probably be lists on perhaps things like Audio UK, but on the simplest level, you can also listen to some of the comedy on Radio 4 and we’ll have a look at it in the sounds app and then see the company is often listed as part of that and then you can you can start to think… oh yeah I like the style of that producer. I feel like my stuff is in the same area as them so I might approach them and see if they’d be interested in representing my work. So that’s one of the basics.

With comedy, we commission in commissioning rounds. And that’s because there’s just a huge volume of stuff I commission on a yearly basis. So therefore, it’s helpful to compare different people’s submissions. And so the commissioning round gives everyone a brief, the same brief they read, and a deadline, and some sort of structure to how they submit ideas. And then I can compare them side by side. Really take a view about whether to take them forward and get more information. And you can find out more about that process by going to www.bbc.co.uk/ commissioning and then you can find all of the commissioning for TV and radio on that bit of the website and if you click around a bit you’ll find a bit where it says I think it’s got a BBC Sounds logo and it says BBC Sounds and radio So go into there and you’ll find out the latest commissioning brief.

So in there will also be my colleague, my drama commissioning buddy will have her stall set out and the factual commissioner and the arts commissioner as well. And we’ve just published those. So we’re recording this in January 24 and we’ve just published the commissioning brief for comedy. So you can go and have a look at that. And I say a little bit generally about the genre and then talk about some of the slots and opportunities. And I also list some of the previous commissions….What’s gone before, so that you don’t offer the exact same thing again.

And then as I say, this is production companies who pitch this. So they will, if they’re all registered suppliers and you can find more about that process on the website, they then get an email to let them know that the commissioning round is open and live and they can access the brief. And then we’re also doing a commissioning tour where myself and my commissioning colleagues will go around to a few different places in the UK talking more directly to suppliers…. Suppliers meaning production companies who want to pitch for work. And overwhelmingly they are independent production companies. In-house does exist in a small way now with a company called BBC Audio, but they’re mainly factual producers and some drama producers.

In comedy there is BBC Studios where I used to work. It’s part of the BBC group, but it competes with other indies for work from me. And then there are heaps and heaps, dozens and dozens of independent production companies. Some are really small, so they could just be one person. And when they get a commission, they might then hire freelancers to help them make the shows or others might be, you know, a handful of people that work in that company.

And so then the first stage is we have a deadline which we call short proposals and then you have to submit 300 words outlining, maximum of 300 words… outlining your idea. And you should do that having read the brief and probably attended one of the, you know, commissioning events. And we do live stream the one that we do in London at the radio theatre. And then I get an awful lot of offers at that point, and I will have to reject a great deal. As many people say, unfortunately, commissioning is all about saying no, which doesn’t sound much fun, does it? But it is the nature of the job. You commission fewer things than you will reject, I’m afraid to say.

So I will reject quite a lot of things at that 300 word stage and then about a third of those I’ll take forward to the next stage where they get to flesh out their idea into sort of two pages of A4 and I’ll have a little meeting and chat to them more about their idea and what I need them to flesh out and any questions I might have around that. So does that give you a decent overview of the process?

Danielle (19:07.006)

Yeah, it does. It gives a lovely practical overview and really great for writers to be thinking about, even if they’re not ready for this round, to be thinking, what does that look like for my current project? So I love that. Thank you. And because you are at the level that you are and do have this perspective on audio comedy that not many of us do have, what are you excited about or if you think there’s challenges you see coming if that’s a better way to take it in terms of the even bigger landscape when we’ve got things like Audible and Spotify and these other companies too. When you’re thinking about writers who really love audio, but are struggling to make sense of the landscape, do you have any insights or practical ways for them to think about what that looks like? Or is it very similar in that really you still need to be matching to production companies?

Julia (19:55.352)

Well, yes, well, let’s see. There’s a sort of lower barrier to entry now in terms of getting your content out there. Because yes, if you want to get stuff on Radio 4, you will need to work with a production company and go through a pitching system to be successful. But it’s the same, I would imagine for Audible and Spotify. I don’t think they sort of take individually produced things, but maybe someone knows differently. But of course, anyone can create their own content and put it out there, whether that’s on YouTube or you want to do it on Instagram or TikTok even. Yeah, so there’s no one stopping you doing that. There’s a bit of rudimentary software, but you could also just do it on a smartphone. So I suppose that’s in a way my competition as well as the likes of Audible who have a lot, and Spotify have a lot of money to throw at big-name talent.

But you can be very successful with your own podcast commercially as we know, and you can do well with advertised revenue and make a living that way. For writers maybe it’s a bit more challenging. There have been some famous scripted podcasts that have done very well. For instance, Wooden Overcoats. Now that’s quite an old example now, isn’t it? That’s good, good many years old, but that was a really quite complex sitcom that had many series of it and possibly it’s still going, I’m not sure actually. And there’s been sort of improv-based sitcoms as well that have done very well. So I guess, often the advice for performers will be, there’s no substitute for getting out there. So if you’re an aspiring comedian, you probably really need to just start making your content. And whether that’s going to an open mic night in a comedy club or whether it’s starting to publish, you know, some short form TikToks or Instagram or just being incredibly witty on X or whatever social media platform that is doing a joke a day or something.

And then writing, I suppose it’s no different to that. You know, how can you get your written content out there? With someone who’s a great performer you really like. Is it working with other writers to script content or, you know, is it going that sort of written medium like, you know, X or blogs or whatever? So I suppose it’s you don’t need to wait for a commissioner to validate your work, really, in that sense.

Danielle (22:21.803)

That’s great. I did want to ask you a follow on from that. If, with the commissioning process, clearly….well, I’m projecting it from the way that you’ve described and things that I’ve read….the concept and the idea needs to be really strong. But are there any things that you think help people connect the dots when they have self-generated work? Because for example, I’m interested in writing fiction and often people ask the question….Do you need to have a lot of Twitter followers to be able to get a book deal? And right now the kind of standard advice is for fiction, not non-fiction, but for fiction where it’s a novel…. Actually no, still the concept in the book is the most important part. But it’s not going to hurt if you’ve got lots of followers. Different for non-fiction, where people often are looking for that brand or that credibility to be able to back it up if it is then a book on a particular topic or it needs to be from a particular person who already has an audience.

And so when people are working with production companies and commissioners, how important do you think that other part, that sort of brand, that voice, having Twitter followers, having self-generated content is? Or do you still take things for people that’s really based on the strength of the writing and the idea. And I know that’s probably not an easy question to answer, but any thoughts would be really helpful.

Julia (24:09.868)

And you’re asking that mainly from the point of view of a non-performing writer?

Danielle

Yes.

Julia:

It’s quite a hard one to make a general answer on, but, I suppose iIf you deliver a knockout pitch in your 300 words, which is just really compelling and funny to read, and it’s got these, let’s say it’s a sitcom idea, and it’s just got these really funny, distinctive, bold sitcom characters, and the premise is really gettable, and you sort of think, oh, I think this could run and run…Then I suppose the next stage is I’m like, so who is this writer? Have I heard of them? If I haven’t, what else have they done? Ideally, when I’d be pitched, the producer would include a bit of biog and a bit of information, you know. So, so-and-so has, you know, previously written on this sitcom or has written this book or writes this blog.Has been a contributor to this sketch show, just to give me a sense of their credentials and that they can deliver, deliver to deadline, deliver consistently. You know what.

It would help me with comedy to think that they’ve got some comedy experience behind them. You know, if they’ve just done some theatre and they come from a drama background, I’d be like, oh well, you know, there’s clearly comedy potential here, but I’m just a bit worried, you know, about what their comedy chops are beyond this paragraph. So I suppose, you know, it would be nice to then be looking up, oh, they’ve got this credit on this short film or…Oh, that’s the, you know, if they’re a comic writer, oh, they’ve got a profile on X and actually they’ve got some really funny tweets here that show something of their personality. They can craft a nice sentence and there’s a bit of engagement from people. Or they’ve written this blog. It might not have a huge audience but it’s really funny and well expressed. Or you’d have some sample scripts, even if you hadn’t been commissioned, you might have written some sample scripts that you can share with me. At that stage, I might just read the first 10 pages to get the flavour. But you know, you just need to provide some evidence.

It’s like, if you had someone coming around to do some work on your on your home, you would want some evidence of their past work, wouldn’t you? And so you could go, I see, yes…that’s good. The reviews are good or, you know, I see they won’t trash my home or whatever. I don’t know. It’s probably a terrible analogy. But you know what I mean? It’s not surprising, given the competitive field, that I would be looking for evidence of that person being motivated and writing and cracking on. I think you just can’t, as a writer, sort of sit there thinking that you are, you know, a future star, but yet really haven’t put yourself out there by writing much and just expecting me to off the bat to say, yeah, fine, no problem, I’ll commission six half hours, please, you know.

Danielle (27:27.966)

Yeah, yeah. And I really enjoyed reading the… there was a press release that came out on Blue Monday in the UK of the, the roster of shows, which just looks, it just looks so exciting. So I wanted to ask you from that, the role that pilots still play. Because we might have all kinds of assumptions and we still use the word pilot for TV, but it’d be lovely to have an up-to-date sense of the really practical role that pilots still play.

For example, I’m really curious how they get evaluated, how that works. Anything about pilots would be helpful.

Julia (28:03.244)

Yeah, yeah, sure. And in fact, I was going to talk about pilots as part of this commissioning tour. So that’s interesting you picked up on that. And yes, with that press release, there were so many other shows I really wanted to mention because I commissioned so many. But, you know, the advice was, you know, you just can’t list everything. It’s not a shopping list. So there was some, there’s some stuff on the way that I haven’t even included in there. So it’s exciting, an exciting year in prospect. Yeah, Pilots are really useful. And in fact, commission a script potentially. So you know I might think… I like the concept of this, I might see some sample scenes which can be really helpful. You know I’m conscious of asking writers to do stuff for free you know and I know that that’s not a good practice but if you really do want to sort of showcase your dialogue or your style, it’s certainly appreciated if you could write two or three pages at proposal stage so I can go… oh yeah that’s you know really nice I’d like to see more of that.

So I might, my next stage might be a script commission that would be just that and that you’d work with that producer who pitches with you and we might talk in advance and I might say the sort of thing to avoid… there are easy pitfalls to avoid. You’re hoping that script commission will then get made and turned into a broadcast pilot is what you’d ideally hope for as the next stage, before you go to series, and there are some easy traps to fall into when it comes to pilot for a sitcom because the temptation is to do this big you know set up episode…where you’re explaining how your main character got into this predicament or whatever. And you can spend so long in that first episode setting up the world and the incidents that are going to lead to the series that it doesn’t really give you a very accurate idea of what a series would be like because you just spend most of it just telling me what’s going to… You know, you’re teeing up what’s then going to happen from episode two onwards. So that’s something to be careful about.

But yes, script commissions are very useful and sometimes I will see a script and go, it’s not really what I wanted. I might give some feedback and see another draft, but if it’s still not working, rather than drag things on, I’d prefer to just be direct with people and say…there are some nice qualities to this, but it’s not what I’m after. I can’t really sort of see it as a series. But then hopefully we will say yes, please to a broadcast pilot. And I’ve got one coming up, which I’m going to see recorded this Friday actually. And so I started off with a script commission of that. And again, it’s just really helpful to get the world out. You know, are these characters memorable? Does it really suggest a world that we want to explore and that we’re going to come back for more of?

And this writer also really wants to do it in front of an audience which is interesting… so that’s obviously a great litmus test you know… how does the audience respond? Do they laugh? Do they gravitate towards the the characters? So i’m excited to see that.

And you know the view would then hopefully it will be great and we’ll go to series. A lot of it is my personal opinion. I will make the decision… do I think that’s great or not. Obviously if no one laughs during the recording that’s some feedback I can’t ignore, even if I still really like it. If no one really gets it then I’ve got to be mindful of that. I’ve also got to think of the audience and not all shows have audiences either so you know it comes down to my judgment, how funny it is. And I can be objective about that as well it doesn’t have to be a hundred percent my comic taste.  But yes it’s just super helpful at that point to sort of think…If I was a listener, do I really want to hear episode 2 now or would I be like… that was fine, but not really sold on it. So sometimes things do go to pilots and I don’t take it further.

And we have a season of pilots that are mentioned in that press release which are happening at the moment on Sunday evenings, Sunday tea time and that was a response to me asking for people to come up with formats that gave an opportunity to a range of talent so there’s sort of mixed talent formats. So I won’t be able to take all of those through to series but I’m hoping that I might be able to take one or two. So it’s a useful exercise. It’s a great tool in the box and because it’s also competitive it’s just a very helpful extra filter to me You know, so I don’t commit to a series and then regret it and then it’s another year until I can get something else on there

Danielle (33:09.35)

Yeah. That sounds tough, but, but exciting as well. And that’s really helpful to hear that process. Thank you. Very inspiring too. And I did want to ask you about formats. And again, not an easy question, but because I was reading about some of the different shows that have been in development and also with BBC sounds. And it’s possible that listeners might have latched onto a particular kind of show that they like and they know that format, but that’s it. And actually, I think there’s potentially more audio formats than people are aware of. So I just wondered if, if there are any audio formats that you think writers overlook in terms of how they’re working. So they might just be thinking…, Oh, just sketch shows or jokes or 30-minute this…What are some of the formats that might get overlooked or that you’re personally excited about exploring. That you may even not know how they’re going to work for listeners now, but you’re thinking about attention spans or what might work and you’re excited to try for audio.

Julia (34:10.668)

Yeah, well, I suppose I commission such a wide variety of types of formats. So there’s quite a lot of different flavours. So there are the kind of sketch-based, you know, and all of these have different forms they can take. So sketches can be audience or non-audience, they can have a lot of sound design, you could find different ways to structure them, so you could say they’ve all got two people in them. You could come up with all sorts of rules where you think…oh, that’s quite a neat concept, and it kind of forces you creatively in a certain direction, but it’s quite a gettable premise for the listener, so it feels very distinctive.

You know, we have stand-up shows where they could be mixed with interviews or sketches and a couple that I mention in the commissioning brief that are quite creative with that are, you know, one is What’s the Story, Ashley Storrie which is non-audience but has quite a nice bit of sound design and it’s quite conversational, autobiographical, sketch show, storytelling.

Is it a sketch show? No, it’s storytelling, I suppose. And then Jess Fostekew, this is stand-up, you can hear some of her performance in front of an audience, and then she’s also chatting to people as well. And you can combine elements so you can bring a sketch show together with a sitcom or have some sort of narrative arc over a sketch show. So we’ve got one coming up called Parish Matters which will be coming this year which is from a largely Northern Irish cast and writers and it’s the structure of it is a sort of town hall parish meeting but it’s a brilliant way to introduce characters. Because you have this sort of slightly formal structure to any people who’ve attended those sorts of meetings, or neighbourhood watch meetings, or school-based meetings, whatever it would be. There’s usually a structure to it and different people are putting up their hands and chipping different things in, and there’s often people who are sort of shepherding the agenda and so on. So it’s a rich place for you to place characters, but also a get-able structure that most people can recognise that they’ve seen before.

So, you know, there’s so many different ways to get the characters out there and you can do it. It can be 28 minutes, it can be 14 minutes. I’m really open to being quite experimental and…You know, you’ve got something like The Skewer, which is pretty unique, which lots of writers contribute to it, but they don’t contribute written words. They contribute ideas and juxtapositions. It’s a clip-based mashup show, which is brilliantly sound designed and has won many awards. But that’s through clips of actual things that have gone out, whether that’s fiction or news, use of music and just bringing stuff together in surprising ways.

There’s heaps of opportunity out there. And you’re right that it’s not good to just sort of follow the form of other things. You can create any rules you want as long as it’s funny and distinctive and gettable to the listener. And there is some innovation out in the podcast space in that comedy world. So, you know, you can cast around for inspiration there, too.

Danielle (37:49.706)

Yeah, for sure. And I wanted to ask you just before we finish, any shows that you’ve watched in the last year, watched or listened to that you particularly love. And I know that can be really hard and it might be hard to choose from your own rosters. It can be comedy in any media, but just any shows where you haven’t even like necessarily had to have your work hat on, you’ve just watched it and laughed or listened to it, and laughed or engaged with it and laughed and thought, gosh, that was really fun or interesting.

Julia (38:16.72)

Yes. Most stuff that I’ve commissioned, I’m really delighted with and I’m really pleased about and it is always hard when you’re….oh, the air conditioning has just gone off in this room, I don’t know if you can tell, the sound difference, it’s always such a relief when it switches off.

Yeah, you know, probably the comedy of the year for me was called Jonathan Pie. It was brilliant sitcom taking an online character that is known for his sweary online rants and then just trying to build out his world in a way that really excited and satisfied his existing audience. And also did a piece of work for me, which was perhaps changing perception about what radio for comedy could be. You know, it’s extremely sweary. And I think a lot of people thought….How on earth did that end up on the BBC? But it’s also super smart and great writing. And then we’ve got other great, you know, things, you know, Janey Godley, The C-Bomb. Brilliant storytelling from Janey’s Glaswegian childhood and also she’s coming to terms with terminal cancer. And speaking of cancer Laura Smith did a fantastic one off, called I Don’t Know What To Say which is about the paralysis people have when they’re confronted with difficult news. Extremely funny. And all sorts of other shows that I could go on to list, which aren’t all stand-up based.

Danielle (39:44.626)

Yeah, but there’s some wonderful recommendations though for people to start. Because like when you dig into it…I think the BBC is tremendous at creating a resource and archiving things and pointing people to things, which is brilliant. There’s so much to explore. It’s an absolute treasure chest, but it’s always lovely just to have a few to start and then people can follow their own interests through, can’t they? Which is awesome.

Julia (39:56.738)

Yeah, exactly. Just quickly two others with scripted hat on. Icklewick FM, which is just about to start. Late Night on Radio 4, it’s a sort of semi-improvised sitcom, sort of sketchy type thing. And then Nora Meadows’ Week of Wellness was also a bit improvised, but, you know, taking a counsellor and her slightly flawed ways of speaking to her clients. So there’s heaps of stuff to check out on BBC Sounds. And you can have a look in this umbrella feed called Jokes, which I’ve just launched. I’m putting a lot of fresh comedy into that.

Danielle (40:38.962)

Mmm. Yeah, I was reading about that.

Julia (40:41.584)

Did you want me to talk about a couple of TV things or are we out of time?

Danielle (40:43.87)

Absolutely, if you’ve got time.

Julia (40:47.812)

These aren’t completely of the moment, but The Change that Bridget Christie did on Channel 4 is an excellent sitcom. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Yeah, which was last year, which is brilliant. She’s a great standup, and she’s done award-winning content for Radio 4, but that’s a superb, very funny sitcom which has got a lot of heart to it.

Danielle (40:57.806)

Oh, I missed that. Yeah.

Julia (41:11.976)

And something else which I just think is a fresh take on using narration as a device would be Never Have I Ever on Netflix. Have you seen that? Yeah. And what a fresh, surprising thing, you know, story of an Indian American school kid really, isn’t she? But she progresses through her teenage years and her experience at school with her buddies and her mum. But also the really novel thing of John McEnroe being the narrator, which is not what you’re going to expect. And you think, how on earth, who brought the two together? And it’s hilariously funny, his voice over. Used sparingly, but it’s very funny.

Danielle (41:43.682)

Yeah.

Julia (41:57.436)

When they do sort of explain why he is the voiceover. I can’t remember if that’s in series two or series one. But I thought that’s just sort of fresh and different way of doing autobiographical stuff, but then just doing something completely unexpected and having John McEnroe of all people providing the kind of funny lines. So yeah, that’s just worth a look if you’re a writer just to see how playful you can be with a sitcom.

Danielle (42:26.57)

Yeah, I agree. I think Mindy Kaling’s a genius. So yeah. And like you say, I think that’s such a lovely example, now you pull that to mind, because we often hear the advice that we want things that are relatable, or that are accessible, but surprising. And like you say, the John McEnroe narration for 15 year old girls, just a brilliant example. Such a fun show. And as you say really, really funny, loads of heart. Thank you for bringing that back to mind.

Great, and I’m going to check out your first recommendation because that was new to me, I missed that. So great, thank you. So I’d just love to finish up by asking, where should people go to find out more about you or the things that you’ve been talking about today? As we were saying, writers, don’t go and bombard Julia individually, but if people want to find out more about the things that you’ve been discussing today, what’s the best point to connect with and come and find you in that sense?

Julia (42:58.398)

Great, great. Well, definitely have a look at that commissioning website. Do you want me to say the address again?

Danielle (43:19.102)

Yeah. So if you don’t mind, that’d be great. I will put it in the show notes, but just in case anyone’s driving and trying to clock it.

Julia (43:25.524)

Sure, sure. Yeah, so go to bbc.co.uk/commissioning and then from there you will be able to navigate to look out for the sounds logo and it will say, I think it will say BBC sounds and radio and then you can see a meet the commissioners page there’s a little bit of… you know I’ll be on there and a few of the others and then if you look out for current opportunities… click through to there you’ll see the briefs.

And so you’ll see mine and you’ll see the drama one, you’ll see the factual and arts one. So that would be a good place for you to look. And within that document you will see that I’ve listed shows that we have going out in those different slots. So some of them haven’t gone out yet. Some will have and you can research those.

Yeah. Check out Jokes. The podcast feed on BBC sounds or wherever you get your podcasts. Just recently launched. So we’re just slowly adding stuff to that. But also you could do worse than just having a little rummage around on the BBC sounds app, going into the comedy genre. You’ll see different comedy charts there. Some of that is archive comedy but I think you’ll probably start to get your head around it as you browse through. You’ll be able to see what is the older stuff and then what’s the new stuff and start to get a sense of the stuff I’m commissioning. And there’s really no substitute for listening to it really. You can listen on a radio at 6:30 weekday evenings for our prime time slot and then it’s 11 pm on a Wednesday, on a Saturday night as well. But all of that stuff is also saved on sounds so really you just need to listen to plenty of stuff.

 I am on X but tweet very sporadically. Sort of like a lot of people hold my nose when I go on social media sometimes but I do try. When I do tweet I tend to promote the content but as I say it’s a little bit hit-and-miss but you could you know follow me and I’ll try and get a bit more reliable with it and send out recommendations and any news updates and that sort of thing.

Danielle (45:36.662)

Wonderful. Yeah. And I do follow you for those recommendations because it can be easy to miss something in the landscape where there’s so many things. So I do find it really useful to follow you and be like… Oh, what’s that? And then I go and find out about it. And this is great. So thank you for doing that. Yeah.

Julia (45:49.296)

Great, right. Yeah, no worries. And then two other umbrella feeds, Comedy of the Week is quite useful. That’s sort of what, usually one episode from a series worth subscribing to. And then Friday Night Comedy, that hosts The News Quiz, The Now Show, Dead Ringers. And there are opportunities as a writer, if you enjoy satire and you fancy yourself being able to do topical one-liners. If you ever listen to that, there are opportunities to get in touch with the production companies of those shows and try and get yourself some writing work on those. Oh, and yes, I must mention our open-door show called DMs Are Open. So it used to be News Jack was the famous one and this replaces News Jack and we’re kind of relaunching it with a new host, and that’s going to start recording, I think it’s next week actually, or the week after. And definitely follow DMs are open on X, and they might be on other social media platforms, and they will accept open submissions for one-liners and sketches. And if you’ve missed the boat this time around, don’t worry, but listen to it when it goes out, you’ll get a better idea for when we do another series of that.

Danielle (47:02.478)

That’s fabulous. Thank you. And I’ll put all those links in the show notes. And thank you, Julia. I know you’re right in the thick of commissioning rounds and you have so many priorities and so many things you’re juggling. So I really appreciate you generously giving your time today and giving us such a great insight into behind-the-scenes at that level. And so much practical advice to take away. So many things that you made so much clearer and so many things that I’m excited to check out. So thank you so much.

Julia (47:26.336)

Oh good, it’s my pleasure. Cheers.

Danielle (47:30.35)

Awesome. Thank you.